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Is Thailand ready for the great US-China rivalry?

The intersection of geo-strategic and geo-economic occurred in Bangkok early last week within hours of departure of US President Barack Obama and the arrival of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. The first has been re-elected for four more years, the latter was on the way out after a decade of leadership. It was not a coincidence that Obama and Wen were wooing Thailand, which occupied the strategic hub in mainland Southeast Asia.

The two leaders had very short time to make their presence felt and long lasting by utilizing hard and soft powers. It is difficult to avoid comparison. US came in with demands and visions while China came in with offers and action plans. Strategies for strategies, dollars for dollars, it seemed China came out on top. Thai public opinion polls also showed that the public generally felt warmer to Thai-China friendship and Wen's visit. The Chinese leader was in Thailand previously three times but never on a state-visit liked this one—which was arranged after the conclusion of the National Party Congress in Beijing last week.

It was clear Thailand was under pressure from the US to give in on key issues such as the Proliferation Strategic Initiative (PSI), Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and access to Utapao airbase during emergency for humanitarian and disastrous assistance. These three conditions are prerequisite for Obama's visit. Kudos must be given to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's brother, Thaksin, who was active behind the scene since July to see to it that Obama made a stopover, rain or shine. After all, Obma's landing was considered a sort of rubber stamp of Thaksin's long held self-aggrandizement, which the US is willing to play. After all, he and his Pheu Thai won the elction and brought stability to Thailand for the past 15 months. When Thaksin was the prime minister, he wanted to trade off the PSI signatory with more US concessions but it did not work out. This time he helped push through the decision to join Trans Pacific Partnership, which was initially opposed by Ministry of Commerce. The decision was essentially a tactical and necessary move to ensure the smooth presidential visit. It is doubtful if the future negotiation will yield any result given the bitter experience of the failed Thai-US free trade agreement in 2003-05. Thailand and Asean strongly supports the newly launched regional trading bloc known as Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership at the Phnom Penh Summit. If it is successful, RCEP will be a bigger trade bloc than the TPP.

To be fair, the best thing was the Thai-US joint vision statement that outlines the future of the region's oldest but ailing alliance. The four-point vision would reinvigorate and make full use of the Thai-US military alliance. This would inevitably lead to the revision and update of archaic Thanat-Rush agreement of 1962. The 50-year-old defence treaty was concluded at the time when the US was fighting against communism and the former Soviet Union. For decades, Thailand and the US shared common security threats. Now the new strategic landscape in the region rendered the whole spirit of past cooperation obsolete. Rising China and India are dominant headlines in this part of the world.

Wen's visit demonstrated the growing interdependency of China's economic power with the rest of mainland Southeast Asia, which covers Southern China, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand with population far exceeding those of Asean. Unlike the Western colonial powers using of guns and cannons in the past centuries of conquests, China is using high-speed trains as a new instrument to outreach all four corners southward. Within 2018 if all go well, all major cities in China will be connected to Kunming, Vientiane, Nong Khai, Bangkok, Sugai Kolok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore through 230-km an hour high-speed trains.

As such, the most often asked question today is how can Thailand play both powers to preserve and promote national interests? Almost all public opinions in recent days pointed to one direction—Thailand must be neutral. But none of them explained what neutrality means in the age of heighten competition and cooperation between US-China rivalry.

Even senior officials at Ministry of Foreign Affairs were unable to be more specific when pressed on to explain what neutrality actually means and can be deployed within the present strategic environment. In the past, when Thailand said it was neutral it meant that it did not choose side. That was obvious because Thailand literally the only country in the region that was free and independent. Other counties were just gained independent and some remained close-society due to their political systems. So, Thailand had all the cards it could play, especially to stay on the fence as long as possible without siding with anyone. This strategy is proving valueless in the time of fast-moving political event, aided by online social media and 24-hour information society. Timeliness is everything

For instance, Thailand's decision to back the Palestinian statehood at the UN was kept under wrap for nine months even though the decision was affirmation at the very beginning. But none of the officials both at the desk and middle levels wanted to make a decision when a more senior official refused to do so. When Thailand made the decision, it was among the very last and no diplomatic value—just liked the decision to sign the PSI, which came after nine years. It was 102nd country to sign. Thailand could score much higher value if it acceded in 2003 when it could be part of top 24 countries.

Thai officials must get rid of the old mindset of "neutrality" which equates to "play it safe" or worse, it means "irresponsibility". From now on, the Thais must take the bulls by the horns. It can say a clear "yes" or "no" on issues concerned national interests and those of our alliances. To be neutral in the rapid shifting strategic order is to understand its limit and potentials. Thailand is an open and dynamic society and share common perspectives across multi-issues with countries around the world. With some humility, Thailand can do that very well.

But truth be told, Prime Minister Yinluck Shinawatra and her trusted lieutenant Foreign Minister Surapong Tohvijakchaikul were cueless. They have failed to articulate the ideal regional order and maximize it to strength the country's position and bargain power. In the globalized world, ambiguity is the worse diplomatic enemy as it could not help in any strategic planning regardless of countries. Just look around, our neighboring countries are getting bolder. Myanmar has said "no" to China and the US previously. Nayphidaw has gained respects that way. Vietnam and the Philippines are no longer playing the second fiddler. Thailand can be neutral by being frank with friends and foes and understand its national interests clearly.


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